The Estonian National Museum is located on a former Soviet military airport.
The Estonian National Museum is located on a former Soviet military airport. Eesti Rahava Muuseum / Tanel Kindsigo

A runway into the future

The new building of the Estonian National Museum, opened in 2016, is spectacular in every way. The building reveals a lot about the eventful history and the present day self-image of the smallest of the Baltic countries.

Hibou Pèlerin

Hibou Pèlerin

For many years, Hibou Pèlerin has been winging his way to cultural and historical exhibitions. For the Swiss National Museum’s blog, Pèlerin picks out one or two pearls and showcases them here.

If there was an award for the most original location of a national museum, it would have to go to the Estonians. The new building of the Estonian National Museum, the “Eesti Rahva Muuseum”, opened in 2016, is located in the former military restricted zone of Tartu, a stone's throw from today's Estonian border with Russia. But that's not all: the elegant and somewhat futuristic-looking building by the Japanese architect Tsuyoshi Tane appears to protrude from the of the former Raadi military airport. As if it suddenly revealed its previously hidden inner life. More symbolism is almost impossible. The former runway of the hated occupiers, also the largest in the Baltic States, is now the place where the small Baltic country documents its history and its historic restart from 1991. However, Tartu is not just any provincial city, but after the capital Tallinn (formerly Reval) the second largest city in the country with around 1.3 million inhabitants. In the middle of the Thirty Years' War, when Estonia was under Swedish rule, Sweden founded the soon-to-be-famous University of Tartu (Dorpat) here in 1632, thus laying the foundation for many developments that have shaped the country to this day. The University of Tartu did not exist continuously, but is not only well connected internationally, but also the only full Estonian university.
The National Museum, built by the Japanese architect Tsuyoshi Tane, in winter.
The National Museum, built by the Japanese architect Tsuyoshi Tane, in winter. Eesti Rahava Muuseum / Arp Karm
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View of the entrance to the Estonian National Museum in Tartu.
View of the entrance to the Estonian National Museum in Tartu. Eesti Rahava Muuseum / Arp Karm
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With the University of Tartu we come full circle to the runway. Because from 1987 onwards, increasingly violent protests against the Soviet power emanated from the students of this university. The first demonstrations were led by archaeology students and, for reasons of cultural heritage protection, were directed against a phosphate mine planned by the Soviets, which Soviet Russian workers were to be flown into Tartu to exploit. The larger context were the massive restrictions (such as strict visiting regulations) that the Soviets imposed on the residents of the city of Tartu as a military zone. The general political mood towards the end of the Soviet era fuelled the protests. They culminated in Estonia's declaration of independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. You can find out all of this at the beginning of the tour through the Estonian National Museum.
The Soviet airfield in Tartu around 1965.
The area around the Estonian National Museum today.
The Soviet airfield in Tartu around 1965 and today. U.S. Geological Survey / Google Earth
This tour is as original as the museum location. After you have moved through the entrance area, which is slightly reminiscent of a huge vacuum cleaner opening, into the interior of the runway, the tour begins surprisingly not with indigenous people, Finugian hunters and gatherers, Vikings, Teutonic Knights and the Hanseatic League as defining elements of the Baltic region. Instead, it starts with a crash course on the so-called "Estonian Mafia". The term includes the numerous start-ups that were founded in Estonia in the 1990s (with help from Sweden, among others). Next to the Estonian satellite ESTCube-1, the communication service Skype is treated specifically. It is no wonder that Estonia occupies a top position internationally with the development of its e-government. The digital infrastructure is omnipresent in everyday life, for example in public transport. More than just an amusing introduction to the country's mentality, especially for visitors from abroad, is in this regard a video clip of a scene that is part of the country's collective memory, running in an endless loop. It shows how the first president of the newly established democratic state after 1991, Lennart Meri, shows himself indignantly in front of the camera at a press conference at Tallinn Airport in 1997 when he sees a toilet lid leaning against the wall next to the toilet bowl. A clear indication of the urgent need for modernization. There is also a Mercedes in the foyer of the museum that Meri received as a gift. When it had to be replaced after a few years, Meri decided against it: he could also walk and use the bike. This shows, that in Estonia, people seem to be proud of an unconventional attitude.
Lennart Meri (1929-2006), the first Estonian President,  in 1999.
Lennart Meri (1929-2006), the first Estonian President,  in 1999. Wikimedia / Jaan Künnap
Meri's message of modernization has reached far. The Estonian National Museum can be seen as a prime example of a contemporary museum that has been digitally enhanced in a well-thought-out way. First of all, you are given an entry ticket with a QR code, which gives you magical powers. You only have to hold it to the numerous screens and steles in the museum to switch to the English version of the brief and instructive explanations of the permanent exhibition and the corresponding exhibits. In addition, the QR code allows you to collect the explanatory texts to read later on your own smartphone or computer. This is even more amazing when you see that all of these texts are also available in Russian (which 66 percent of Estonians speak or understand), Finnish, Latvian, German and French. The drawback is, that the sheer volume of explanations, accompanying texts and documents, as short and informative as they are, does not make it easy to get an overview. Especially if your own knowledge of the rather tricky history of the Baltic States is rather poor.
Architecture inside the museum.
Architecture inside the museum. Eesti Rahava Muuseum / Anu Ansu
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Architecture inside the museum.
Architecture inside the museum. Eesti Rahava Muuseum / Berta Vosman
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Architecture inside the museum.
Architecture inside the museum. Eesti Rahava Muuseum / Berta Vosman
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After all, we get the essentials. For example, that in Estonia there is not only this brilliant dynamic of departure, but also a difficult legacy with numerous experiences of flight, persecution, oppression and the resulting coexistence of different ethnic groups. Because of their location, the Baltic States have always been a sphere of interest and influence of various powers. But it was not until the twentieth century, and especially during the Cold War, that this situation came to a head ideologically. At first, at the end of the 19th century, parallel to the developments in Russia and infected by the spirit of revolution there, the Estonians rebelled against the small but economically and culturally dominant class of the predominantly Baltic German landlords. The process led to land reform in 1919, the first independence and the establishment of the Republic of Estonia. The subsequent phase of the industrial boom that had already begun at the end of the 19th century – quickened by the year-round ice-free Baltic ports – came to an abrupt end when the entire Baltic region was granted to and occupied by the Soviets in 1939 after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact (also known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact). A painful chapter began with the displacement and deportation of tens of thousands, mainly resistant Estonians, to Siberian labour and death camps. This tore deep wounds, which shape the relationship with Russia to this day. The persecution of the Jews had already started under a national conservative government and intensified as well.
View of the permanent exhibition "Encounters".
View of the permanent exhibition "Encounters". Eesti Rahava Muuseum / Anu Ansu
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View of the permanent exhibition "Encounters".
View of the permanent exhibition "Encounters". Eesti Rahava Muuseum / Berta Vosman
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View of the permanent exhibition "Encounters".
View of the permanent exhibition "Encounters". Eesti Rahava Muuseum / Anu Ansu
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View of the permanent exhibition "Encounters".
View of the permanent exhibition "Encounters". Eesti Rahava Muuseum / Anu Ansu
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View of the permanent exhibition "Encounters".
View of the permanent exhibition "Encounters". Eesti Rahava Muuseum / Berta Vosman
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After we have let ourselves be drawn into these sad stories and further down the museum’s throat, which towards the end opens up again to the expanse of the former airport area, which is now partly used as a solar farm, our energy has somewhat faded, after all. Before we reach the last finds from Estonian peat bogs, we therefore deviate from the main route and, for a change, pay a flying visit to the side cabinets. A good idea, because they turn out to be extremely attractive and diverse. The colourful Estonian costumes are a highlight, as is the ethnographic collection in general. If you love folk stripe patterns in the craziest variations, you've come to the right place. The department is also an Eldorado for rural carving and braiding. We especially liked the space for Estonian or more generally Baltic cuisine: Here we look over the shoulders of numerous housewives (and a little fewer househusbands) while they cook. Finally, some top Estonian chefs explain how Baltic fusion cuisine works (ingredients are berries, beetroot, cucumber, buckwheat, which are abundant in the markets, as well as salmon and the darkest rye bread in the world). Even the Soljanka, a Russian soup which uses leftovers, can apparently reach Michelin standards. The fact that these culinary acts of reconciliation are perhaps more important and less trivial than one initially thinks becomes apparent in a room with small, carefully designed showcases. Here personal photographs and memorabilia from Estonians encourage people to listen to their life’s stories. It is noteworthy that these “oral histories” also include the Russian part of the population, which makes up around 25 percent of the total population. However, the coexistence in everyday life in Estonia is not as easy as in a museum. There are too many painful memories in numerous families.
Estonian national costumes.
Estonian national costumes. Eesti Rahava Muuseum / Anu Ansu
But what makes Estonian history interesting from a Swiss perspective? In addition to very specific reasons – as a member of the EU since 2004, for example, Estonia has been one of the recipient countries of the EU cohesion billions and is an increasingly important trading partner – there are significant historical links. The first Estonian republic of 1919 was recognized by Switzerland as early as 1921, thanks to the introduction of democracy. Even after the liberation from the Soviet occupation forces in 1991, Switzerland supported Estonia. In addition to sympathy for a small nation that had to overcome steep hurdles on the way to democracy, there are also good geopolitical reasons. Located in an age-old friction zone between East and West, Estonia's citizens have committed themselves several times and with considerable sacrifice to the Western European ideals of freedom and democracy. Against this background, it is easier to understand why Estonia founded a national museum in the 21st century (the roots of which go back to the 19th century): It is not primarily used as a refuge for dust catchers, but as a conceptually well-thought-out platform for understanding for its citizens and for everyone who is interested in this small country with its eventful history.

Estonian National Museum Tartu

The museum offers permanent and temporary exhibitions (also in English). Tartu can be reached comfortably by train from Tallin in just under two hours. Those who shy away from traveling to Estonia can also visit some virtual exhibitions.

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).